Rate of tropical rainforest destruction leaps by 62 percent

Globally, tropical rainforests are getting hammered even faster than we thought.  This is grim news indeed for the planet's biologically richest real estate.

Pardon me, thou bleeding piece of Earth... forest loss in Cambodia  (photo by William Laurance)

Pardon me, thou bleeding piece of Earth... forest loss in Cambodia (photo by William Laurance)

That's the conclusion of an important new analysis that used detailed Landsat data to assess deforestation rates from 1990 to 2010, in tropical nations that contain about 80% of the world's remaining rainforests.

The study, led by Do-Hyung Kim of the University of Maryland, USA, contrasted average rates of tropical deforestation between 1990 and 2000, and between 2000 and 2010. 

The authors found that the net rate of forest loss (the deforestation rate minus the rate of forest regeneration and afforestation) jumped from 4 million hectares per year in the 1990s to 6.5 million hectares per year in the 2000s -- a 62 percent increase overall.

In the 2000s, Brazil was the fastest forest-destroying nation worldwide, according to the authors.  However, its deforestation rate in Amazonia began falling in the mid-2000s and is now just 25% or so of its former rate.

Southeast Asia is the major tropical region in the worst shape, with less forest than either the New World or African tropics and the highest relative rate of forest loss.

Deforestation rates are relatively modest in Africa but are accelerating in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Madagascar -- both vital hotspots for biodiversity.

Notably, the University of Maryland study differs in its conclusions from a major analysis by the FAO (United Nations Food & Agricultural Organization). 

The FAO study concluded that deforestation had fallen in the 2000s, relative to the 1990s, but the University of Maryland researchers say the FAO missed important centers of deforestation that were obvious in their satellite analyses.

Clearly, it's time to redouble our conservation efforts in the tropics -- or we may be remembered as the generation that stood by and watched the rainforests die.

 

 

 

Will new supercrops feed the world and help save nature?

We live in a hungry world -- and one that will soon grow much hungrier.  Global food demand is expected to double by mid-century because of rapid population growth and changing food habits.  Producing that much food could require a billion hectares of additional farmland -- an area the size of Canada.

But if we develop new high-yielding 'supercrops' and farm them intensively, could we feed the world with less land and thereby spare some land for nature?  Many have argued in favor of this idea.

A tsunami of oil palm  (photo by William Laurance)

A tsunami of oil palm (photo by William Laurance)

But a new study published in the leading journal Science suggests the opposite: supercrops will actually encourage more habitat destruction for agriculture, especially in the species-rich tropics.

The authors argue that new varieties of palm oil, which are highly productive and profitable but grow only in the tropics, are simply going to keep spreading apace.  That's because there's so many different uses for palm oil, including for many food items, cosmetics, and biofuels, that demand for it will remain high.  

And, as palm-oil production rises, its price will likely fall, meaning that it will increasingly out-compete other oil-producing crops, such as canola (rapeseed), sesame seeds, and peanuts.

This, the authors say, will simply shift the footprint of agriculture from areas such as North America and Europe to mega-diversity regions such as the tropical rainforests of Southeast Asia, Latin America, and Africa.

What's the answer to the tsunami of oil palm and other profitable tropical crops?  There really is only one alternative: we need proactive land-use zoning to determine where agriculture should and should not go -- to ensure it doesn't just overrun nature.  And we need better law enforcement to reduce illegal deforestation.

And we direly need to limit the explosive expansion of roads into wilderness and high-biodiversity areas.  By 2050, it's expected that we'll have an additional 25 million kilometers of new paved roads -- with nine-tenths of these in developing nations that sustain many of the world's biologically richest ecosystems.

There really is no other option.  Supercrops may help feed a hungry world, but if they're not constrained they will destroy much of nature in the process.